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Part 8 of 8
Under the Soviet Regime

By 1920 the borders of Soviet Russia took shape. A considerable number of Jews who had formerly been included within the borders of the Russian Empire remained in the states which had broken away from it (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bessarabia, incorporated into Rumania). About 2,500,000 Jews only remained within the limits of Soviet Russia. The fate of the Jews within the borders of Soviet Russia was to a large extent determined by the theory and practice of the Communist Party. Its outlook defined and crystallized during the 20 years which preceded the Revolution. Like all the other socialist and liberal parties, the Bolshevik party repudiated anti-Semitism, while the civic emancipation of the Jews, as that of the other Russian peoples, formed part of its program. It took some time until the party recognized Jews as a nationality. Under the influence of assimilated Jews, who carried weight in the circles of the socialist leadership of Europe and Russia, the Bolsheviks were inclined to regard integration and assimilation as the only "progressive" solution of the Jewish problem. This outlook was sharpened during the bitter discussion at the beginning of the century between the Bolsheviks and the Bund. Leaning upon Marx, K. Kautsky, and O. Bauer, Lenin declared that "there is no basis for a separate Jewish nation," and in regard to a "national Jewish culture—the slogan of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie—this is the slogan of our enemies."
Stalin declared in his pamphlet Marksizm i natsionalny vopros ("Marxism and the National Question," 1913) that a nation is a "stable community of men, which came into being by historic process and has developed on a basis of common language, territory, and economic life"; since the Jews lack this common basis they are only a "nation on paper," and the evolution of human society must necessarily lead toward their assimilation within the surrounding nations. These theories of the fathers of Communism increasingly influenced Soviet policy toward the Jews, though in the beginning the Soviets were compelled by the actual conditions to deviate from their theories and to allow the existence of Jewish political and cultural institutions (the Yevsektsiya; Yiddish schools and publications, etc.). These deviations, however, proved in the long run to be of a temporary character, after which the line—of imposed assimilation of the Jews—was implemented with even more energy and firmness.
By its war on anti-Semitism and pogroms, the new regime gained the sympathy of the Jewish masses whose lives depended on its victory. Jewish youth enthusiastically joined the Red Army and took a part in its organization. Many Jews reached the higher military ranks and played an important role in the formation of the Red Army. Leon Trotsky, who organized the military coup of the October Revolution of 1917, was the creator of the Red Army which included among its prominent commanders a number of Jews (of whom the most celebrated were General Jonah Yakir and Jan Gamarnik). In the Soviet air force there was General Y. Shmushkevich. In 1926, 4.4% of the officers of the Red Army were Jews (two-and-a-half times higher than their ratio to the general population). Jews took an important part in the restoration of the country's administration which had collapsed after a large section of the Russian intelligentsia and former officialdom emigrated from Soviet Russia or refused to serve in it.
However, the new regime brought complete economic ruin to the Jewish masses, most of whom belonged to the "petty bourgeoisie" of the towns and townlets. The abrogation of private commerce, confiscation of property and goods, and liquidation of the status of the townlet as the intermediary between the peasants and the large towns—all these deprived hundreds of thousands of Jewish families of their livelihoods. About 300,000 Jews succeeded in leaving the Soviet-controlled territories for Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Rumania. The declaration of Lenin on the failure of the economic policy of the period of "war Communism," the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), together with the conclusion of the civil war and the restoration of order in the country, brought some relief to the Jews, but their economic situation was broken and hopeless.
With economic ruin, the new regime also brought spiritual ruin to the Jews. When the Bolsheviks seized power, they were compelled to recognize the fact, even if as a temporary phenomenon, of the existence of millions of Jews who were attached to their language and their national tradition. A Jewish commissariat headed by the veteran Bolshevik S. Dimanstein was established between 1918 and 1923 to deal with Jewish affairs. "Jewish Sections" (Yevsektsiya) were also set up in the branches of the Communist Party. Jewish members of the party who were prepared to work among their fellow Jews were organized in these sections. The function of the Yevsektsiya was to "impose the proletarian dictatorship among the Jewish masses." The older Jewish members of the Communist Party were mostly assimilationists who did not want any contact with their people. However, as the success of the Bolsheviks and the efficiency of their terror measures became increasingly evident, they were joined by sections of Jewish socialist parties (the Bund, the United Jewish Socialist Workers' Party, the Po'alei Zion) as well as by individual Jews. These brought with them ideas on the fostering of a secular Jewish culture in Yiddish and envenomed hatred toward the Jewish religion, the Hebrew language, the Bible, and the Zionist movement. The Communist Party put them in control of the Jewish population centers, at the same time stressing that their activity was only a temporary measure for as long as it would be required.
The first activity of the Yevsektsiya was the liquidation of the religious and national organization of the Jews of Russia. In August 1919 the Jewish communities were dissolved and their properties confiscated. The general anti-religious policy took the form, in relation to the Jews, of persecution of traditional Jewish culture and education, of prohibiting the religious instruction of children, the closure of hadarim and yeshivot, and the seizure of synagogues which were converted into clubs, workshops, or warehouses. A violent campaign against the Jewish religion and its leaders was conducted and heavy taxes were imposed on the rabbis and other religious officials in order to compel them to resign from their positions. In these activities the Yevsektsiya encountered the opposition of the religious masses, who based themselves on the promise of freedom of religious worship, which was officially proclaimed and later included in the Soviet constitution, and struggled for their right to pursue their way of life by legal or illegal methods (through "underground" hadarim, yeshivot, etc.). The imprisonment and expulsion from the Soviet Union of Rabbi J. Schneersohn, the leader of Habad Hasidism, in 1927 marked one phase in the suppression of Jewish religion. Even after this, "underground" religious activity continued, and its influence was manifested when hundreds of hasidic families left the Soviet Union and went to Erez Israel after World War II.
War was also proclaimed against Hebrew; its study was prohibited, and the publication of books in Hebrew was suspended (though until 1928 it was still possible to print religious books and Jewish calendars). In June 1921 a group of Hebrew authors led by H. N. Bialik and S. Tchernichowsky left Russia. Several years later the Hebrew theater Habimah left the Soviet Union. It had attained a high artistic standard and for several years had been protected from the Yevsektsiya by several of the greatest Russian cultural personalities, led by M. Gorki. The remaining Hebrew authors (Abraham Friman, Hayyim Lenski, Elisha Rodin, and others) were cruelly persecuted and many of them sent to forced labor camps.
The Zionist movement revealed great vitality. The Soviets viewed Zionism as a threefold danger. It strengthened the vitality of Jewish nationalism. It diverted the Jewish intelligentsia, whose talents the regime required, toward activities beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. It maintained relations with the World Zionist Organization, then an ally of England, which ranked among the countries hostile to the Soviet Union. The Zionist movement went underground. Most of its members were youths and boys who were active in the Zionist parties (Ze'irei Zion; Z. S.), youth movements (Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir; Kadimah; and others) and within the framework of He-Halutz which trained its members for aliyah. Many Zionists were imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or exiled to outlying places in Soviet Asia. For several years the Soviets authorized the existence of He-Halutz in certain regions of the country, but this authorization was abrogated in 1928. Thus organized Zionism was silenced by the end of the 1920s.
The independent societies and publishing houses (Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah, the Historical and Ethnographic Society, and others) continued to exist until the late 1920s. Some of their activists succeeded in leaving the Soviet Union (S. Dubnow; S. Ginsburg). Individuals remained in the Soviet Union (I. Zinberg). In 1930 the Yevsektsiya was also disbanded. The first stage in the liquidation of the national life of the Jews in the Soviet Union had been completed.

"Jewish Proletarian Culture"

To replace the Jewish culture which had been destroyed, the Jewish Communists attempted to develop a "Jewish proletarian culture," which was to be, according to Stalin's slogan, "national in form and socialist in content." This culture was based on the promotion of the Yiddish language and its literature, while the writing of Hebrew words in Yiddish was changed to phonetic transcription, so as to cut the link with Hebrew (examples: Myryyvvak instead of MyrbH; sAmA instead of Tma). A Yiddish press was established, with three leading newspapers; Der Emes (1920–38) in Moscow, Shtern (1925–41) in the Ukraine, and Oktiabar (1925–41) in Belorussia. Numerous literary and philological periodicals, youth newspapers, and a trades unions press were published every year. A Yiddish theater network was established. It was headed by the Jewish State Theater under the direction of A. Granovski (until 1929) and afterward the actor S. Mikhoels. These presented adaptations of Jewish classics, by authors such as Mendele Mokher Seforim, Shalom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, as well as Yiddish translations of Soviet propaganda pieces and plays. In Minsk and Kiev "Faculties of Jewish Culture" were established in the universities. They essentially promoted research into the Yiddish language and its literature, Jewish folklore, Marxist historiography of the history of the Jews in Russia, and of the Jewish labor movements. The works of these institutes, as well as the whole of Jewish literature, were subject to the supervision of the Yevsektsiya, headed by M. Litvakov, who kept watch to prevent "nationalist and rightist deviations." During the short period, between the middle 1920s to the middle 1930s, when this Soviet Yiddish culture flourished, it appeared to many adherents of Yiddish in the world that with the assistance of a great power a new Yiddish literature would emerge in the Soviet Union. Jewish authors and scholars who had left the country during the first years after the Revolution, as well as Jews from other countries, began to arrive in Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk (among them the authors D. Bergelson, P. Markish, M. Kulbak, and the scholars N. Shtif, M. Erik, and Meir Wiener).
Yiddish was also given an official status by the establishment of governmental tribunals in which proceedings were held in Yiddish. The greatest efforts were however invested in the development of a network of Yiddish schools. Many such schools were opened in the towns and townlets of the Ukraine and Belorussia. During the first years an attempt was even made to compel Jewish parents to send their children to these schools. Secondary schools and training colleges for teachers were also established. At the height of this period, in 1932, 160,000 Jewish children (over one-third of the Jewish children of elementary school age) attended these institutions. From this year, however, a decline set in. Jewish parents refused to send their children to schools whose Jewish character, apart from the language of instruction (which was the de-Hebraized Soviet Yiddish), was limited to the study of a few chapters of Yiddish literature and even these were interpreted in a manner which offended the religious and national values of the Jewish people. A further cause for the decline of this network of schools was the small number of Yiddish secondary schools and the lack of Yiddish higher educational institutions. By the late 1930s these schools began to disappear until they were liquidated, largely of their own accord, in almost every corner of the Soviet Union.
Cultural assimilation gradually gained in momentum among the Jews as they became integrated within the life of the new Soviet society. The majority of the Jewish children attended Russian schools. Jewish youth was attracted to the larger cities where the Yiddish language was nonexistent. Even the Jewish-Russian press, which served as an obstacle to assimilation, and the Jewish societies and organizations were absent there. Mixed marriages became a frequent occurrence. In 1935 over 60,000 Jews studied at the higher schools (over 10% of the country's students). An expression of the assimilation of the Jews and their activity in Soviet literature could be seen from their large participation in the first conference of Soviet writers in 1934, at which there were 124 delegates of Jewish nationality (about 20% of the total delegates). Only 24 of them wrote in Yiddish; the others mainly in Russian. These included some of the most prominent authors of Soviet Russian literature, such as I. Ehrenburg, B. L. Pasternak, I. Babel, and S. Marshak. The Jews also played a central role in the development of other spheres of Soviet culture, especially the cinema.

Economic Reshuffle

The most decisive factor in the history of the Jews of the Soviet Union was the economic reshuffle which took place in their midst during the 1920s and 1930s. The brief NEP period (1921–27) aroused vain hopes among the Jews, who occupied a place of considerable importance in the urban economic class of shopkeepers and independent craftsmen ("nepmen"). However, when the success of the NEP period was at its height, severe supervision was imposed on this class, and the burden of taxation brought its impoverishment and destruction. The situation was especially difficult in Jewish townlets whose former economic basis had been destroyed. A widespread class of destitute and unemployed was created; its members were also deprived of civic rights (lishentsy in Soviet terminology), such as the right to employment, public medical care, and the right of their children to study in secondary and higher schools. With the liquidation of the NEP and the introduction of the first Five-Year Plan (1927–32), the situation of these masses deteriorated even further. Thousands of families subsisted on the meager assistance which they received from Western Jewry, through public organizations (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC); ORT; ICA), through organizations of emigrants from towns or townlets (Landsmannschaften), or individual relatives. Notorious in this period was the "Extortion of Dollars" campaign of the Soviet secret police, with the use of coercion and torture against Jews suspected of "hoarding dollars." During the late 1920s, according to official statistics, about one-third of the Jews belonged to the economic classes which were destined to disappear and deprived of the above-mentioned rights. The authorities sought to solve this problem in three ways: by agricultural settlement; by migration to the interior regions of Russia, which had been closed to the Jews under the czarist regime; and by concentration in the large towns and industrial regions of the Ukraine and Belorussia, where new classes of government officialdom and industrial enterprises had developed.

Agricultural Projects

During the 1920s many of the leaders of the Soviet government came to regard agricultural settlement as the highroad to the solution of the Jewish problem. A steady movement toward agricultural settlement of Jews had already started near the Jewish townlets during the period of war Communism in the years of the civil war, when occupation in agriculture at least promised a piece of dry bread. In 1924 the government created the Commission for Jewish Settlement (Komzet) and a year later a Society for the Promotion of Jewish Settlement (Ozet) was founded. Several Soviet leaders, led by M. Kalinin and Y. Larin, viewed this settlement not only as an economic solution for the Jews but also as a means of assuring their national existence. Some members of the Yevsektsiya accepted these projects with enthusiasm and devoted themselves to their realization. These circles aimed to establish Jewish settlement in successive blocs which would form autonomous national areas and would eventually find their place among the national units of which the Soviet Union was composed. As a basis for such a concentration, the regions of prerevolutionary Jewish settlement in southern Russia were chosen, where 40,000 Jewish farmers already lived, as well as the Crimean peninsula, in the northern parts of which there were still areas available for settlement. Over a number of years five autonomous Jewish agricultural regions were established: Kalinindorf (Kalininskoye) in 1927, Nay Zlatopol in 1929, Stalindorf (Stalinskoye) in 1930, in the Ukraine; Fraydorf in 1931, and Larindorf in 1935, in the Crimea. Jewish settlement organizations of the West, especially ICA and the JDC, were associated in these activities. Ozet became the legal focus for Jewish activities, and in its newspaper Tribuna (Russian, 1927–37) the problems of the "productivization" of the Jews and their agricultural settlement were discussed. Communists of Russia and abroad considered this activity to be, among others, the Soviet alternative to Zionism.
It soon became evident that there was not sufficient space in the Ukraine and Crimea for Jewish settlement on a large scale. In 1928 the government decided to direct this settlement to a distant and sparsely populated region in the Far East—the region of Birobidzhan, on the banks of the Amur River on the Chinese border. In order to encourage settlement in Birobidzhan, a political as well as an international Jewish character was given to this enterprise. Jews throughout the world were called upon to lend a hand in the establishment of a Jewish territorial unit within the framework of the Soviet Union. On May 7, 1934, the district of Birobidzhan was proclaimed a Jewish Autonomous Region which was to cover an area of 36,000 sq. km., whose official language would be Yiddish. Settlement in Birobidzhan took place in difficult pioneering conditions. In August 1936 the government announced that "the Jewish Autonomous Region was from now on to become the cultural center of Soviet Jewry for all the working Jewish population." This proclamation aroused opposition within the circles of Jewish activists in the European part of the Soviet Union. It appears that misgivings were also felt in government circles toward the outspoken national character which the settlement of Birobidzhan received. In August 1936 a drastic change occurred in the attitude of the government toward Birobidzhan. The leadership of the region, which was in the hands of former members of the Jewish socialist parties, was liquidated. From then, the Jewish aspect of the region began to wane. Officially Birobidzhan retained its name and status of a Jewish autonomous region, and the only newspaper still published in Yiddish in the Soviet Union is the Birobidzhaner Shtern. At present, however, Birobidzhan has only symbolic importance in the lives of the Jews of Russia. Its number of Jewish inhabitants, which in 1937 rose to 18,000 (about 24% of the total population of the region), declined to 14,169 in the census of 1959, forming 8.8% of the region's population and about 0.66% of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. Less than 40% of them declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue.
By the late 1930s the hopes which many Jews in Russia and abroad had pinned on agricultural settlement evaporated. The collectivization of farming during the early 1930s, which was frequently bound up with a policy of "internationalization" (i.e., the inclusion of non-Jewish peasants in Jewish kolkhozes), resulted in the departure of many Jewish settlers. The industrialization and development of the towns attracted many members of the settlements to the large towns. With the German invasion all the Jewish settlements of the Ukraine and Crimea were destroyed and they did not recover after the war.

Absorption Into the Soviet Structure

In practice, the problem of Jewish integration within the economic structure of the Soviet Union was solved by many Jews moving to the interior of Russia and their absorption in Soviet officialdom and industry. Migration toward the interior of Russia, which had already begun as a result of the expulsions from the war zones in 1915 and with the outbreak of the Revolution of 1917, continued uninterruptedly, as indicated by the general censuses which were held in the Soviet Union in 1926 and 1939.
The movement of Jews to Moscow and Leningrad was most evident.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews took up employment as factory workers or were absorbed in administrative occupations (especially as clerks in consumers' cooperatives and in accountancy). According to official sources, The Jews were divided according to their social status in 1939 as follows:
Jews were largely represented in the Soviet intellectual class. At the close of the 1930s, 364,000 Jews (of whom 125,000 were accountants) belonged to this class. Thus, in Soviet society, the Jews also remained an exceptional element in their social composition. Commerce, which had held the central place in the lives of the Jews before the Revolution, was replaced by administrative occupations and professions in technology and sciences. In Stalin's "purges" of the late 1930s, which were directed against the members of the old Communist guard, many members of the Yevsektsiya were liquidated and the main Jewish newspaper and the Ozet society were closed down. Apart from this, however, these "purges" did not bear an anti-Jewish character and were a part of the general policy of the party. At the end of the 1930s Jews still played an important role in administration, science, and Soviet art. However, no Jewish national or communal organization existed whatsoever. Assimilation took giant strides. Mixed marriages became commonplace. Yiddish-Communist culture was gradually disappearing, but there was still a class of Jewish activists, authors, and teachers who held their ground in this atmosphere of extinction, and proclaimed, in accordance with the optimistic official line in the Soviet Union, the great "success" achieved by Marxist-Leninist policy in the solution of the Jewish problem and the "renovated Jewish people" (dos banayte folk) which had emerged in the Soviet Union.